After nearly two weeks of picking through the rubble of the deadliest rail accident in recent Canadian history, the head of the Quebec provincial police’s crime scene investigators broke down in tears on Thursday.
“There are new problems every day,” said an overwhelmed Steven Montambeault, the Sûreté du Québec sergeant responsible for directing the recovery of bodies from the shattered downtown of Lac-Mégantic.
As of Thursday, 42 bodies have been pulled from the rubble of the once picturesque town in eastern Quebec. Police expect a total of 50 will eventually be found.
Wearing a black T-shirt as he walked to the high fence that still rings the site of the deadly derailment, tears ran down the police officer’s face as he described the dark green pools of highly flammable benzene still found across the accident site.
“My favourite colour was green. That will be changing,” Sgt. Montambeault said. The chief investigator said he will never forget the look and stench of the mud-like pools left after a wall of burning oil washed through the area.
The identity of the Quebec provincial police has long been linked with the green uniforms its officers wear. The colour is even used as shorthand to describe the force.
After 13 days in which police spokesmen delivered mechanical and detached updates about progress at the accident site, Sgt. Montambeault’s tears matched the exhausted stares of first responders walking away from the scene.
The local fire chief came over and put his hand on the officer’s shoulder as he described the chaos of the first days after the July 6 derailment of a train carrying 72 tankers of crude oil.
“We learned that some zones were toxic, but we had been working in them for days. I was proud when no one said: ‘I’m leaving.’ We kept working,” he said.
Overlooking the broken downtown is Ste-Agnès church, the site of a makeshift memorial. Over the past week, a steady procession of tourists has arrived with cameras and binoculars to stand on the church’s steps and peek over the nearby barricade obscuring the accident site.
Although some have labelled them “disaster tourists,” Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche has invited people to visit the area. Since a mass on Sunday and an earlier candlelight vigil, people who live in the area have largely avoided the busy church grounds.
After watching days of news coverage in the nearby village where he lives, John Steward said he had to see the devastation with his own eyes, although only the tops of smashed rail cars and scorched trees were visible.
“I’ve been staying away from here. I just couldn’t bring myself to come,” an emotional Mr. Steward said. He brought a letter from family members to leave in the church beneath hundreds of colourful hearts bearing messages for the missing.